Posts Tagged ‘Noah Berlatsky’

Reading People Reading “My Brain”


Wednesday, October 29, 2008

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The following post was written by David Heatley, in response to last week’s Cage Match:

I’ve been checking out some of the reviews of my book floating around on the web, including here on good ol’ Comics Comics, and I wanted to take the time to articulate some of the intentions I had with My Brain is Hanging Upside Down and respond to some of the criticism.

First off, I’m really proud of this book. I spent almost five years on it. It’s not perfect by any stretch and I’m sure it will be a maddening read for some people, but it’s my baby and I stand behind it. I think of it as a catalog or a ledger accounting book. It’s an inventory of my life. It doesn’t have a traditional novelistic arc to it. It doesn’t follow the rules of usual literature and might not look like your run-of-the-mill comic book.

My Brain is a series of fractured vignettes that approximate a self-portrait, clearly incomplete— a record of who I was and what mattered to me most while writing it. More than that, it’s the best way I know to talk about my country. There’s an amazing amount of personal and cultural baggage I was bombarded with as a kid and teenager and it’s my job to sort it out and make sense of it and decide what’s worth keeping (and passing on). The risk I took was in betting that readers would find that process entertaining or moving or helpful in some way. It seems the jury’s still out, over here at least.

I used to do this a lot, but I no longer spend time wishing works of art were something they’re not. I don’t wish Stan Brakhage made commercial Hollywood films. Or that Kanye West would do something more stripped down, personal and emotionally revealing. I try to accept art for what it is and decide if it has anything of value to offer me. If I take a stance against it, especially if it’s accompanied by a righteous feeling of being sure of my opinion, I’ve found that I’m using someone’s work to further my own unhappiness, discontent and irritability and ultimately it has nothing to do with the artist on whom I’ve fixed my angry gaze.

Frank Santoro leads the discussion here with a lot of emotionally charged accusations, which for me, mostly amount to this: “Your book (of which I read bits and pieces in the bookstore) stirred up a lot of feelings in me and I’m angry at you that I have to feel these things, so I’ll pretend that it’s actually boring and that I don’t care about it.” This was disappointing since my hope is that people will actually read the book, in all its complexity, before commenting on it (I’m reminded of Catholic nuns protesting Last Temptation of Christ). But also because I’m a big fan of Frank’s work and like him personally. He has a simultaneously painterly and cinematic approach to comics that I find enlightening and educational. He was a big inspiration for me in working on the “Family History” strip of my book, in particular his book Incanto, which is a gorgeous series of drawings done at an inhuman velocity. I’ll continue to admire and seek out all his new work. No hard feelings, Frank! For real, yo.

Tim Hodler articulated some excellent points of criticism and was generous with his praise. He’s of the mind that the asides in the book, written in the present tense while I was working on it (including the “shout outs” in “Black History”, or the epilogue of “Sex History”) don’t belong and are too jarring to be included in this volume. I’m not objective and I’m sure I have a distorted view of how they come across. I think they add a further wrinkle of complexity to the story. For what it’s worth, I’ve heard from several readers that they loved reading the asides in the midst of the otherwise heavy narrative. It was like a comic relief or a moment of decompression.

I don’t have much to say to people who don’t like the way my art looks. I certainly have my own preferences and tastes and you’re entitled to yours. Hopefully I’m getting better at it. There’s plenty of other stuff out there if you’re mostly looking for traditionally beautiful comic book artwork. I think Overpeck will look a little more “fully baked.” This one was like editing together the work of 5 different people under a single pseudonym.

I want to clarify Heidi MacDonald’s comment about a panel I recently did at Barnes & Noble. She states, “Heatley was very frank about being a narcissist and how that informs his work. I got the impression that the effect on the audience is a secondary motivation for him.” What I actually said was that there’s something narcissistic about all writing. We’re people who are traumatized into thinking that the most incredible thing in the world is what’s happening inside our heads at any given time. And we constantly think about how we can use what we’re experiencing in our own work, sometimes at the expense of being present with the people around us. I went on to say that I hope that what may look like narcissism could be seen as a desire to look deeply into myself and share what I find. I don’t feel a lot of attachment to my story as something that defines me. I’m done with it. And if I’ve done my job with this book, my readers will find something useful or illuminating or entertaining in it.

Noah Berlatsky, an acquaintance of mine, and a talented, but bitter writer living in Chicago, wrote about my “Sex History” strip on a site called comiXology. The highlights of his career so far have included well-written, but scathing attacks on Chris Ware and Art Spiegelman with titles like “In the Shadow of No Talent”. For the record, back in 2002 I almost illustrated one of his poems as a comic strip, but had to abandon it because it seemed too similar to a Marc Bell strip at the time. He also contributed to an incoherent failure of an anthology I produced while living in Chicago called The New Graphics Revival. I stand behind the idea of that book, which was that given the time and materials, most anyone could produce an interesting comic strip. But I’m embarrassed by almost all of the work that was sent to us, mostly by a middling, call-for-entry gen-x set. I’m not saying that my failing to promote an anthology that contained work by him or my inability to finish a strip based on his writing could have led him to write this line: “Whether through pointlessly tangled continuity, repetitive autobio dreck, aggressively ugly art, or reflexively irrelevant literariness, [Heatley’s] comics seem determined to find some way, any way, to keep out all those readers and creators who might otherwise, and naturally, see comics as their own.” But anything’s possible!

More to the point, he claims that in the anecdotes about bad sex, longing and one night stands that make up “Sex History”, I’m depicting ciphers, not real women. “He occasionally wonders what is up with one of them — why is she behaving so oddly? Why didn’t she get me off? But he never really cares enough to find out — or, at least, not enough to waste one of his tiny panels telling the reader about it.” Unfortunately, he missed the fundamental idea behind the piece and took the work at face value. The “me” character is something of an unreliable narrator. I’m asking the reader to imagine an alternate universe where the details of falling in love and getting married deserve a single panel and where obsessive thinking about a meaningless crush or one-night stand deserve dozens. I’m certainly not defending the behavior or even the thinking shown, quite the opposite. Something I tried to expound on in the strip’s new epilogue.

The pink bars, by the way, are pretty much a non-issue outside comics circles. I think previous readers feel like I gave them something and then took it away. So now they’re angry. One plausible theory, at least.

A few words about “open ambition”, which seems to be popping up on the comments section here. I’ve never felt at home in the “indie” comics world, where authenticity is judged by how few books are sold and ultimate hipster cred is dealt to artists who are selfless enough to leave their name off their piece entirely. It’s true I’m a self-promoter. I want my book to sell. I want to make lots of money. I want to have a house and give my kids a college education. I used to think that making art and making money were incompatible. It took shedding a lot of my own self-loathing and shame to get to a place where I believe in what I do and get excited about sharing it with as many people as possible. Maybe I’ve tipped a little too far in my excitement. I’m cool with that. I’m not sure what “careerist” means. It must be the sexiest word a surly 25-year-old can muster to put a “successful” artist like me in my place. “He’s just in it for the career!” I don’t really make those distinctions. The business side of art isn’t evil. It’s interesting. If all that turns you off, there’s plenty of other work out there by sad, lonely, misunderstood artists to fetishize and worship. They need your attention more than me.

It was heartening to hear some excitement even among My Brain‘s detractors for my next book Overpeck. I think of it as the polar opposite of what I was going for with My Brain, so there’s a good chance all my fans and critics will switch sides when it’s published. Or maybe not. It should be out from Pantheon by 2010 or so. It will have a more-or-less novelistic structure with a traditional story arc and will feature the best, non-cramped art I can deliver. Yours for $24.95, if not less.

Sincere thanks for reading. And for all your comments, even the viciously nasty ones. Peace out.

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Variety Pack


Tuesday, March 11, 2008

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1. This old interview with Matt Groening popped up in my RSS reader about a week back, devoid of any context or explanation. I’ve decided to take it as a sign that now is the time for me to declare that — strange as it sounds to say about one of the wealthiest and most-celebrated cartoonists alive — I think Groening’s comics work is highly underrated.

Most episodes still have a few funny moments in them, but The Simpsons lost me as a big fan at least a decade ago. And while I was initially excited by the concept of Futurama, it never hit that sweet spot for me that the first two or three seasons of The Simpsons and many of Groening’s early Life in Hell strips reached on a regular basis. The strips collected in books like Work is Hell, Love is Hell, and School is Hell are not just incredibly funny and insightful, they also display a barely concealed sense of real dread over the human condition. That underlying pain raises the humor above the amusing into something that I find genuinely moving, and even strangely comforting — yeah, sure, life is pointless, but at least I’m not the only one who feels that way. To me, early Groening at his best belongs to the same great tradition as Kafka and Ecclesiastes. (Or at least it’s a small, awkwardly beautiful fish swimming in the same big river.)

2. Incidentally, it occurs to me that with all the endlessly recurring talk about “literary” comics versus “art” comics, if you go by the only definition of literary comics that makes much sense to me (the relative importance and prominence of the words), then Groening and Lynda Barry are two of the most literary cartoonists around. It’s strange that their names never come up in those discussions.

3. Since I’ve written some harsh things about the critic Noah Berlatsky in the past, it seems only right to point out his recent post on Alan Moore, which I think is quite good. I don’t necessarily agree with him in all the particulars, but it’s a really strong, fair, smart piece. For some reason, writing about Moore tends to bring out the best in him.

4. Finally, I don’t think I’ve linked to Charles Hatfield & Craig Fischer’s relatively new comics site yet, but it’s been worth regular stops for a while now. (I probably never would have bought the fascinating Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure comic if I hadn’t read their write-up, so I owe them for that alone.)

Anyway, while I regularly disagree with many of their individual judgments, their writing is unfailingly thoughtful and fair. This week, they took on Frank’s Storeyville. Again, I don’t concur with everything they say about it, but it’s nice to see the book finally getting some real (and overdue) critical attention. (If I didn’t feel constrained by ethics, I’d write more about it myself.) I hope this helps get a good conversation going.

[UPDATE:] 5. & 6.: A Gary Panter interview and Gary Groth on Jules Feiffer.

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A Possibly Tedious Clarification


Sunday, September 16, 2007

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Sorry if this post is boring, but I want to highlight one recent comment from Jon Hastings, partly because it makes a really good point, and partly because it gives me an opportunity to make clear something that I haven’t been trying to say over the past few days. Hastings writes:

I find myself agreeing to all of your points, but can’t help being, emotionally at least, on Noah [Berlatsky]’s “side”. For me at least, there’s so much baggage from old internet arguments over the merits of super-hero comics vs. alt/art comics that I find it is really easy to make the kinds of mostly baseless, sweeping judgments that Noah is making here. My beef was never really with alt/art cartoonists, but rather with those comics critics (self-appointed or otherwise) who I saw as using the work of those alt/art cartoonists to attack my beloved super-hero books.

I’m not at all unsympathetic to this view, and couldn’t be less interested in using “serious” comics as a cudgel against other kinds of comic book stories. I think it’s understandable for long-time comics readers to occasionally get a bit defensive when it sometimes seems like only relatively straight, self-evidently serious works approaching “proper” subject matter (Maus, Persepolis, Fun Home, etc.) are seen as respectable in the wider world. (I don’t think this is actually altogether true, mind you, but it can feel that way.) Maus, at least, I think fully deserves its high reputation (I haven’t read the other two, which I guess should be my next homework assignment), but really, this is one more reason to say God bless Robert Crumb, the one artist to have broken through who can’t by any means be separated from the comic book’s anarchic and fantastic roots.

Over on the Fantagraphics blog, the great designer Jacob Covey also commented on this sort-of-stupid blog fight, and his take is really pretty smart, though I’ll admit I had to read it a couple times before I got some of it. Covey writes, “The subject is ‘art comics’ versus superhero comics– a distinction I already find vague and silly seeing how the two ideas rely on a black and white separation though I see a vast overlap. Not to mention that this [precludes] the one genre from ever being considered art, which is a bit presumptuous.” I agree with that comment entirely, except to say that I wasn’t trying to argue that “art” comics are inherently better than superheroes.

Covey also very kindly describes Comics Comics as “the definitive fringe art-comics periodical”, while admitting that with PictureBox as a whole, he can’t help but feel “there’s a bit of validity-through-outsiderness going on at times.” I can’t speak for PictureBox (though I imagine Dan might take some issue with that), but at least in terms of Comics Comics, that couldn’t be further from our intention. That’s why we’ve covered so many “mainstream” subjects in the first place, from Dick Ayers and Steve Gerber to Alex Raymond and the Masters of American Comics show. Whether or not we’re successfully realizing our goals is of course for others to judge.

In his second post, Berlatsky made at least one point that I really agree with: “The cultural space within which a work is produced, and the way it is received, has a lot to do with a medium’s health.” If critics are capable of doing anything at all (and they may not be), they can help shape that cultural space. There are many great traditions in comics, from the Harvey Kurtzman legacies of comic satire and unglamorous war and historical stories, to superhero tales (which at their best can be wonderfully surreal and pregnant with political subtext and sometimes just silly fun), to less easily classifiable work like that of Fort Thunder and Jim Woodring, and a whole lot more besides. All the various contributions of Japan and Europe and elsewhere should be included, and yes, I think that comics that deal with real life in an at least somewhat realistic and serious manner should be, too. Few readers will, or should, find all kinds of comics equally to their taste, but the cultural space I would like to encourage has a place for all of them, and will judge each work on its own individual merits, not on arbitrary generic guidelines.

Again, I apologize for this kind of boring stuff, but I don’t want to be misunderstood, and thought it might be good to have this on the record.

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Some Not-So-Fancy Footwork


Friday, September 14, 2007

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So Noah Berlatsky has responded to my last post, and while he does clear up a few misunderstandings, his response basically provides a clear demonstration of my point: he makes a series of over-the-top judgments and claims, based on apparently arbitrary or contradictory premises, and with little or no evidence to back up his theories.

Here is what we learn:

  • The creators of “art comics” are overwhelmingly obsessed by memoir and literary fiction.

    [Berlatsky does not say what he means by “literary fiction”, or provide examples. There exist many, many examples of comics — Jim Woodring, Julie Doucet’s dream comics, Gary Panter’s Jimbo, Teratoid Heights, Marc Bell, much of Love & Rockets, Paper Rad, Charles Burns, Kim Deitch, etc., etc. — that I don’t think would fit, whatever his definition might turn out to be.]

  • Memoir and literary fiction are very close to the same thing, and hardly “separable”.

    [I don’t know how to respond to this, other than that I don’t understand it. Again, a definition of “literary fiction” would be helpful.]

  • The cartoonists’ “obsession” with realistic subject matter stems from “a desire for literariness and respectability,” a desire Berlatsky sees “as being linked to the pulp past.”

    [This is his key assertion in both posts, and he really should back it up. I don’t want to simply repeat the substance of my last post, but as I mentioned before, other than a few cartoonists who have dabbled in, parodied, or expressed their affection for the genre, it is difficult to identify any younger cartoonists who seem very exercised about superheroes one way or the other. Surely there must be some evidence somewhere for his main thesis…]

  • All memoir and all “contemporary literary fiction” can be described as tedious, pretentious, and self-absorbed.

    [Again, Berlatsky gives no examples, and no definitions of his terms, but is still quite comfortable providing a very broad-brushed condemnation of two enormous genres.]

  • Elegy and nostalgia are also more or less the same thing, and therefore elegy is “just about the worst of all possible modes for art”.

    [Wordsworth, Whitman, Yeats, and Rilke: your stock is dropping!]

  • Michael Chabon’s novel, The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, is the “best example” of a comic book striving for literary respectability.

    [One would think that the absence of pictures would disqualify this.]

  • Berlatsky is happy to use Daniel Clowes as a scapegoat for all the “problems” of alternative comics, but doesn’t feel the need to read the bulk of his work before doing so.

    [Check out his description of Clowes’s comics in the comments of his post: “His stories seem magical-realist in a really perfunctory way that seems completely New Yorker ready.” Are we supposed to take this judgment seriously, applied to the creator of “Needledick the Bug-Fucker”, “Why I Hate Christians”, and “Dan Pussey’s Masturbation Fantasy”?]

  • “Manga is an incredibly vital and diverse art form, with standards of craft and storytelling that leave most American comics whimpering in pitiful little puddles of incompetence.”

    [So what are we to do with all those manga that deal with real-life situations and people, not a superpower or magic spell in sight? Are those manga also “obsessed” with literary respectability? Or is Noah only defending giant-robot and ninja stories?]

There are several other hidden assumptions and unproven assertions and conflations in Berlatsky’s post, but this has gotten boring enough already. In the end, here’s what I take away from his posts: Berlatsky doesn’t like the fiction published in The New Yorker, and somehow, superheroes are to blame.

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A Manifesto Against Vague Manifestos


Thursday, September 13, 2007

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Noah Berlatsky, frequent contributor to The Comics Journal, is a sharp, perceptive, and almost always provocative critic, though he indulges in critical overkill and scorched-earth tactics far too often for my taste; his judgments often appear over-the-top, and based on arbitrary or contradictory premises. That being said, I almost always read his work when I see his byline, which is more than I can say for most comics critics.

Berlatsky recently started a blog, and his post from yesterday is an excellent example of what I often find so maddening about his writing. It’s a pox-on-both-your-houses piece, claiming that both superhero comics and “alternative” comics are fatally flawed for certain, aesthetic reasons. I don’t want to pick on Berlatsky in particular too much for this, because it’s a depressingly common argument, but I’m frankly tired of hearing it.

He begins by deriding today’s superhero comics as largely formulaic exercises in nostalgia, and that seems to me an at least arguably fair judgment; I can’t think of many exceptions. He then goes on to describe alternative comics as the flip-side of the same coin.

[S]uper-heroes still hang over the art comics like giant, four-color, cadavers. Alt comics seem to be constantly looking up nervously at these suspended, bloated monstrosities, feebly protesting, “What that…oh, no, *that* doesn’t have anything to do with me. We just came in together accidentally.” Or to put it another way, alt comics have a huge chip on their shoulders, and they have responded by rejecting everything super-hero in favor of Serious Art — which, alas, often means seriously boring art. Why on earth is autobio and memoir the standard for art comics? Is there an imaginable genre which makes less use of comics’ inherent strengths — the ability to represent fantastic, magical situations with charm and ease? The answer’s pretty clear: it’s the very boringness which appeals. Alt cartoonists are desperate not to be associated with super-heroes, and the best way to do that is by becoming literary fiction. God help us.

As I said, this is becoming a common position (Douglas Wolk made a somewhat similar argument in his flawed but interesting Reading Comics, as did Marc Singer in his Mome takedown a while back), but I really don’t understand the basis for it. Where are all these boring, serious art comics overreacting to superheroes? Is it really that hard to find comics that aren’t memoir? Or any that aren’t obsessed with distancing themselves from superheroes? Aside from possibly a few members of the older guard, I find it hard to apply that criterion to nearly anyone.

At least Berlatsky has the courage to name names, unlike A. David Lewis in his anti-autobio Publishers Weekly rant from earlier this year. (Berlatsky should read Tom Spurgeon’s response to that, by the way.) But his supposed culprits (Daniel Clowes, Chris Ware, The Comics Journal) only make his argument more confusing. Clowes and Ware rarely write explicitly auto-biographical comics, and Clowes is responsible for probably the funniest, most merciless satire of boring memoir comics ever (“Just Another Day”, Eightball #5, rivaled only by Johnny Ryan‘s “Every Auto-Bio Comic Ever Written”). Of course, Berlatsky has admitted to having read very little of Clowes, so he may not be familiar with that particular story. (He is partly right about The Comics Journal, which sometimes allows its reviewers far too much room to go on about themselves rather than the work at hand, but I doubt that was his intended point.)

It is true, I suppose, that when Ware and Clowes reference superhero comics, they usually do so through parody or satire, though I think it is far too simple to categorize their approach to the genre as simply contempt or as an attempt to distance themselves from it. Clowes’s Death Ray is one of the best superhero comics I’ve ever read, and while his Dan Pussey stories are fairly devastating in their treatment of superhero comics, they don’t exactly treat the “art comics” world with kid gloves, either. I would also argue that Ware’s references to Superman and Supergirl in his Jimmy Corrigan and Rusty Brown stories are just as much elegiac as critical.

Outside of those two artists, it’s hard to think of cartoonists struggling against superheroes at all. Gary Panter and the Hernandez brothers have made no secret of their affection for the genre, Jeffrey Brown and James Kochalka make decidedly friendly parodies of it, and most alternative cartoonists of today seem more than happy just to ignore it altogether. (Note that ignoring the genre is not the same thing as “constantly looking up nervously” at it.) It’s true that some older cartoonists, such as R. Crumb, Art Spiegelman, and Bill Griffith, haven’t been shy about badmouthing superheroes, but even they have been willing to champion superhero artists they think are worthy, such as Jack Cole and Fletcher Hanks. In any case, when those artists began working, it made some sense to distance themselves from the superhero genre, which still overwhelmingly dominated the public conception of comic books. These days, I don’t think many younger cartoonists care one way or the other about it.

I think the main problem with Berlatsky’s complaint is a confusion of subject matter with form. At the risk of being pedantic, let me explain. Recently, superhero stories have arguably been better told through movies than in comics. Many of today’s superhero comics, slavishly attempting to recreate cinematic effects, are consequently often closer to glorified photo-funnies than real comics. This, however, does not mean that the superhero comics of Kirby, Ditko, Toth, Cole, etc., are any less purely “comics”. They were told by gifted artists and masters of the comics language, who knew how to exploit the medium’s strengths.

Likewise, just because a cartoonist chooses to tell a realistic story about ordinary life (subject matter that has historically more often been tackled in literary prose than in comics), it does not follow that the resulting comic is therefore “literary”. Both Ware and Clowes know the language of comics as well as anyone, and have innovated hugely within the form. It is hard to think of any cartoonists more engaged with comics history. And whatever your opinion of their merits, it is likewise difficult to imagine works more purely “comics” than Building Stories and Ice Haven. I can name maybe a handful of current artists who might actually fit Berlatsky’s description, creating dull, pseudo-respectable “literary” comics stories and apparently unable to or disinterested in fully utilizing the language of comics. On the other hand, I can think of scores of innovative, engaged cartoonists who are advancing the form in many different genres without seeming to worry about literary respectability at all.

Berlatsky’s conclusion also baffles me:

In moments of hope, I think that in twenty years Chris Ware and Dan Clowes and the Comics Journal will all be seen as a quaint detour in the history of the medium, and comics will be a hugely popular, aesthetically vital medium mostly created by women in a manga style. That’s not because I hate Chris Ware or the Comics Journal (I don’t). It’s just because I think, overall, it would be a better direction to go.

Again, this is a not uncommon refrain from comics readers, but its logic escapes me. I have nothing against manga, the best of which seems to me to be just as artistically valid as anything created in North America, and the inclusion of more female voices would be an obviously healthy development, but I will never understand so many comics readers’ apparent desire for “hugely popular” comics, and the implied belief that that popularity goes hand in hand with being “aesthetically vital”. While there are many popular works of art that are also aesthetically vital (Dickens), there are at least twice as many aesthetically vital works that will unfortunately never be hugely popular (Melville).

I don’t care if comics in the future are aimed at 13-year-old girls or 31-year-old boy-men or both or neither. I don’t care what genre they fit into, or what country they’re produced in. All I want are comics that are good. Hoping that cartoonists of the future ignore the best American cartoonists of the recent past, especially for reasons that don’t make a whole lot of sense, doesn’t seem like a particularly promising way to go about getting them.

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